How to create visible and valuable vaccine content

Jo-ann Fortune

Head of Content

Sam Colebrook

Content Strategy Director

Uplifting Covid-19 news is what we all need right now – and with each new vaccine update comes a fresh web of search queries begging to be answered through online content. Lockdown life is also likely to have compounded the reliance on Dr Google to ‘diagnose’ concerns through health-related searches, which Benenden Health put at 100 million between 2018/19.

So at the end of an unprecedented 12 months, that’s seen ‘infodemic’ and ‘covidiot’ make it into Oxford’s Word of the Year 2020 report, how can pharma companies create digital healthcare content that satisfies both this desperate demand and the specific quality criteria Google has developed to keep users safe?

Building on our long-standing pharma expertise and having spent much of the summer auditing meningitis vaccine websites, at iCrossing UK we find ourselves qualified to prescribe some solutions. Distilled from analysis of 11 international websites, dozens of competitor healthcare information pages and over six thousand relevant keywords, here’s what you need to know before hitting publish on your vaccine content…

Know what success looks like

As the starting point for planning content, carefully consider what you want people to think, feel and do once they’ve read it.

For the vaccine sites we audited, the ultimate goal was to encourage visitors to contact a healthcare professional (HCP), so assisting users to reach relevant ‘action’ pages and optimising these with clear calls to action was critical. Best practice examples here included content arming users with relevant questions to ask their HCP and checklist summaries on whom specific vaccinations were recommended.

Your own answer to this question will shape the user journey you build your site to facilitate, as well as the goals that will allow you to measure success and improve performance. Fundamentally, it will turn any visibility you gain by providing quality content into real value for both your audience and brand. 

The medic update

Now, a little digital family history. In the past decade Google has come under fire for prioritising false information, and was driven by accusations of misdiagnosis to make an important change to its core ranking algorithm in 2018. This so-called ‘medic update’ applied strict scrutiny to any page that could impact a person’s happiness, health, financial stability or safety, which Google coined ‘your money or your life’ (YMYL) pages.

Around this time, the search engine also revised its Search Quality Evaluator (SQE) Guidelines – a publicly available document outlining the criteria used by manual reviewers when assessing webpage quality.

Expertise, Authority & Trust (E-A-T)

Both of these updates put a greater focus on a site’s expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T), and as a result, many websites with low-quality medical content or lacking relevant expertise suffered a crash in search traffic.

So if you’re committed to creating safe, valuable vaccine content that you want to be visible online, the first step must be to build a team with appropriate medical knowledge. Or, if this presents compliance issues, to curate expert research, reports and advice so you can substantiate claims by linking to appropriate, trusted sources. Either way, this expertise must be clearly demonstrated.

Demonstrate author expertise 

Start by interrogating your own expertise. If there are gaps, source and manage expert contributors and identify trusted information sources for reference. Your audience and Google will be asking ‘where does this information come from?’, so you should too.

The absence of author bios citing relevant qualifications was one of the main undermining factors of the pages we audited; particularly when pitted against public-service health pages in E-A-T scoring.

Where employing expert contributors – whether to create, edit or vet your content – make it clear who they are and why they’re qualified to create such potentially powerful prose. Introduce the professionals behind the vaccine trials – especially those who’ve featured in press coverage and could become a reassuring, familiar face for your audience. 

Anecdotal experience also counts 

Anecdotal personal experience also helps to meet user needs. Our pharma network audit work often highlights the importance of forums and social media in conversations around disease online, as people seek peer connection and advice. Of course Google knows this, so recognises such “everyday expertise” in its E-A-T scoring.

First-person accounts of Covid-19 vaccination – for example from trial volunteers – or those who have suffered the destructive effects of the disease, could provide critical real-world evidence to build trust.

Signpost affiliation and current source material

As well as at page level, think about your site as a whole. Strengthen authority by signposting affiliation with regulatory bodies and linking to trusted sources. Date stamp all content and sources to show your content is current. And leave no question unanswered by adding a thorough ‘about’ page and easy-to-find contact information.

But E-A-T isn’t the only factor Google considers when evaluating healthcare content…


Just as negative reviews or press coverage are a big turn off for those searching for solutions, they’re a huge no-no for Google too. Google’s guidance on reputation says to ‘look for articles, reviews, forum posts, discussions, etc. written by people about the website.’ So an ongoing job for your PR and brand teams, yes. But assessing factors likely to influence external perceptions of your website – even before launch – can also help you cover the right content themes with a reflective tone.

Take a lead from media coverage… 

Mainstream media angles on Covid-19 vaccines will give you a clear indication of interest and your audiences’ frame of references, to help you pre-empt and answer likely questions. To provide relevant, comprehensive information you may need to explain what defines an efficacious Covid-19 vaccine and how scores are calculated; mirroring questions being asked by journalists on behalf of their audiences.

Particularly negative press 

In the case of negative coverage, onsite content can also help directly address and quell concerns. In our audits we identified articles accusing pharma brands of profiteering from raising awareness of meningitis B, based on a relatively small number of outbreaks. While these criticisms were rebutted in media statements, acknowledging the rarity while reinforcing the severity of the disease, such specifics weren’t covered onsite. And one of our recommendations was to repeat this transparent messaging to foster brand trust.

Face the skeletons in your closet 

Pay attention and react not just to conversations around your brand and Covid-19, through regular sentiment reviews, but also your broader reputation in the markets you’re serving. Google states that if there is any negative sentiment around a creator of YMYL content, the reputation score must be marked as low. And as searches for pharma companies associated with Covid-19 vaccines have naturally spiked in the past few months, it’s wise to know what content may surface from these – particularly around other disease vaccines associated with your brand or creators.

Quality of the main content

The lowest average scores across the entire competitor set of vaccine sites we audited were for the quality of main content, which for YMYL pages is concerned with the accuracy, comprehensiveness and clarity against a page’s purpose.

Don’t just lift the leaflet 

Many of the issues here stemmed from a mismatch in the breadth and depth of content delivered against demand. Of simply lifting content from an introductory offline leaflet and dropping it online without thought for different target audiences, intent and platform preferences. With YMYL content, it’s critical to cover topics comprehensively, in a way that clearly answers all the questions someone landing on your site might have.

Know who you’re talking to

To create purposeful content of the highest quality, start by building personas for the audiences you’re trying to reach. For meningitis, answering the questions and concerns of parents about their young children and teenagers was key. With Covid-19, you’ll likely be writing for carers of older people and those in specific caring professions. It’s also important to map out the different drivers of intent. (Admittedly no small task for a disease currently affecting so many aspects of our lives). For example; starting University and planning foreign travel were common triggers to researching meningitis vaccine topics.

Explore search behaviour and competition

Once you’ve bucketed stages of your target audiences’ search journeys, conduct keyword research. Then examine the content already ranking for these terms as a mirror to audience intent and your quality benchmark.  

For meningitis, we found the highest volume of search demand in the initial research stage – around symptoms, transmission and effects – and recommended expanding content in these areas to help improve quality signifiers around comprehensiveness. These more generic terms are often the most competitive, with fresh content from news sites and local government-regulated websites likely to take the top search results spots for Covid-19 topics, just as they did for meningitis. So again, make sure you cite these visible, trusted sources in your own content.

Target terms near the point of decision

Your best chance of adding value and securing top-ranking positions will probably be through content that answers questions nearer the point of decision. For example, explaining how the vaccine works, who it’s for, how it’s administered and possible side effects. And due to the broader awareness, understanding and interest in Covid-19, compared to some other diseases, it’s worth going into more detail here than you might see on existing vaccine websites. Such specifics will also go some way to help counter a proliferation of false information.

Obsess over clarity

When you come to structure your content, check every element of the page and ask whether it helps or hinders clarity. Ensure there are no ambiguous titles, that language is accessible and not burdened with medical terminology. And nothing on the page is hidden – if your audience needs to do anything other than scroll to view your YMYL content, it isn’t clear enough.

For more advice on how to build a content strategy, download iCrossing’s free content strategy template.

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